Black cinema for your required education. Four films as a springboard for you to learn more about the African-American struggle, white supremacy, and white ignorance in the USA.
It is so crucial, now more than ever, but also always, to educate yourself. While we are all being spoonfed so much information by what we’re inevitably seeing on the media these past few weeks, we have no excuse to not extend our understanding of the situation at hand. We’ve hand-picked a few films to give you a look at blackness and anti-blackness in America, as well as police brutality, white supremacy, and white ignorance. Remember: black lives matter, have always mattered, and will always matter.
1. Do the Right Thing (1989) dir. Spike Lee
Barack and Michelle Obama went to see this Spike Lee film on their first date. It’s an especially relevant film right now and the entirety of the movie takes place on a very hot day in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, New York City. Lee himself stars in the film and plays Mookie, the protagonist, who delivers pizza for the white-owned Sal’s Famous Pizzeria which is shown to display the “first stages of white gentrification.”
The film features an array of interesting and vivid characters from the black community in the area and their relationship with white Italian-Americans in the pizzeria as well as white passersby in their neighborhood. The Guardian described it as a “culture war” about representation: a character referred to as Buggin’ Out suggested to Sal, the white owner of the pizzeria, that at least one black American should be up on the pizzeria’s “wall of fame” because African-Americans make up virtually all of Sal’s customer base.
It’s cultural chaos in the area: white people with black people, black people with Latinos, and then the Koreans who run a convenience store who are still an “exoticized mystery,” and it isn’t made clear whether they are exempt from looting or not because of “virtue of ethnic underdog status” or be considered “de facto whites.”
2. Welcome to Leith (2015) dir. Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker
This doco premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and was broadcast on PBS’ series Independent Lens after a limited theatrical release. Set in the small town of Leith, North Dakota, the film chronicles white supremacist Craig Cobb, who bought several tracts of land. Cobb took advantage of how small Leith is and so he planned to buy a few houses in the town and overthrow the local government alongside other racists separatists to gain power over the town. Cobb and his group arranged town meetings and disrupted daily life for the townsfolk through harassment, carrying guns around, and publishing their personal information on websites.
The two directors, Nichols and Walker, were able to interview Cobb himself as well as his supporters and got footage of their commotion with the people of Leith. The film is structured like a fictional thriller—an atmosphere of something sinister and dreadful followed by a climax—but has the elements of a balanced documentary by showing both sides of the story.
To quote The Guardian’ s review of Welcome to Leith : “America is a country that prides itself on freedom, but what can be done when people take that freedom too far?’
3. Black Panthers (1968) dir. Agnès Varda
French director Agnès Varda, along with her crew, shot this short documentary film during her time in California in Oakland, where the protests over Huey P. Newton’s arrest for John Frey’s murder. The film features an interview with Newton himself, who spoke about his mistreatment amid incarceration, the ideals of the Black Panther movement which includes protecting the black community from the police, informing them of their rights, and taking advantage of license to carry firearm laws to arm fellow Panthers.
The film features interviews with other people as well, including Kathleen Cleaver on the natural hair movement and the importance of women as authority figures in the Black Panther movement. According to Criterion , the film “evinces Varda’s fascination with her adopted surroundings and her empathy”, and also represents a “powerful political statement.”
4. Fruitvale Station (2013) dir. Ryan Coogler
This biographical drama film is Ryan Coogler’s feature directorial debut based on the final 24 hours leading to the death of Oscar Grant, a young black man shot dead in 2009 by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle at the Fruitvale district station of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system in Oakland, starring Michael B. Jordan as Oscar Grant. The shooting happened at point-blank range while Grant was unarmed, handcuffed, and lying face-down. He had the cops called on him after a reported “rowdy incident” on a train. The officer who shot Grant claimed he had intended to pull out his Taser and not his handgun.
A review of the film by The Guardian states that what was so moving about Grant’s story was its apolitical aspect: “there is something almost spiritual in the eerie importance that all the ordinary, banal facts of life achieve under scrutiny, as time is running out. Every phone conversation, every encounter, every argument, every silly or fleeting thought, everything assumes a new mysteriously vivid quality, an occult focus, as the shadow of death falls across it.” (Text Jordinna Joaquin)